Reality Bites – Fantasial

Having first seen the film at Pesta Filem Kita 2016, Adi Iskandar decides to give Daniyal Kadir’s ‘Fantasial’ another spin.

A beating heart. A man runs. Who is he? We don’t know, but we follow him, the camera tracking him from the front. Our eyes are on him, delving deeper into his desperation even as we are moving backwards. I get the sensation that he’s trying to reach us, trying to get somewhere, but the whole scenario has been set up to make sure he never does.

Perhaps that’s a big part of the issue to be peeled back here. But first, we go back to the man. He reaches a house, and, after walking up the brief incline, tucks in his shirt, hoping to make himself as presentable as possible even as he sweats by the bucketload. It turns out that he is trying to take part in an audition, and he waits outside the house, sitting on a bench while catching his breath and composure.

All this happens while we hear angry voices from inside the house, berating someone auditioning for the same talent competition: “What’s the point of being an artist if you don’t want to be rich? And you come to the studio on a bicycle? You’re living on past glories!” The English translation I could muster does not quite do it justice, for it sounded harsher in Malay, but all the same, it sets the stage for our protagonist, making it clear that it’s not going to be a walk in the park.

A man comes out, and sits on the same bench as our protagonist. Lighting a cigarette, he tells him to go inside, and to try his luck. He proffers old proverbs and songs, perhaps as a way of soothing his own heart. Our man goes in, and ‘Fantasial’ starts to take greater shape, as he stands in front of an unforgiving panel of judges. He introduces himself as Hamdan (Izme Azzam), and one of the judges is Azman Hassan. I’ve always thought that a Malaysian independent film is not a Malaysian independent film without Azman Hassan; he’s always a presence on screen, and seeing him here makes me smile.

It is probably somewhere around here that I start to think of ‘Fantasial’ as this film’s version of ‘Akademia Fantasia’. That was a programme which gained much popularity in the beginning of the 2000s. As I recall it, it was based on a Mexican singing competition, and is widely credited by many as kickstarting the reality television show fever in Malaysia. That being said, ‘Fantasial’ is far from the showcase of meritocracy we want it to be (the cynics among you will say that neither are any of the reality television talent shows we’ve been bombarded with all this while). Why? Because even before Hamdan opens his mouth to really say something, the judges were already delivering their critical thoughts, berating him without knowing what it is he brings to the table.

I want to say that this is where Hamdan steps up to the plate, ready to swing back at his detractors. Yet he seems to wilt under pressure, and breaks down as he reveals his motivations for taking part in the talent competition. “If there are any opportunities I can grasp to make money,” he sobs, “I will take it.” He explains how this has to do with his own socio-economic conditions, made worse by his own tendency to gamble: “I owe people money, left, right and centre.” He speaks of how his family has been affected, a predicament which initially seemed somewhat comical, but not without its own political commentary. For instance, he speaks of coming home to find his family on the floor, watching television which offers little more than junk content: “Masses of people wearing Malaysian-patterned shirts, shouting for the prosperity of the country.” I wanted to laugh at that, and I actually did, but his sympathetic condition, allied with the indifference showcased by the judges, made me uncertain whether that’s how it’s meant to be understood and enjoyed.

Therein lies a slight issue with the film. I understand Daniyal’s efforts to be a film which seeks to parody much of the elements that exist in Malaysia (with an especial focus on its entertainment industry). To that end, perhaps this is a text in which a much better understanding of the context is actually required. That goes for almost all works of art, of course, but the overall treatment of this film means that while I know there’s more beneath the surface, the façade presented made me feel uncertain as to how I should proceed. Am I supposed to laugh at the demise of others? Or should I take a more empathetic route, in which I identify with much of the characters?

A critical perspective sees Hamdan as representing much of the audience consuming a lot of the junk reality television show Fantasial sought to represent. Yet, if anything, perhaps the story (written by Haris Hauzah and Asyraf Arshad) was too effective in making me see things from Hamdan’s perspective. We previously reviewed ‘Oh My Husband’ by James George, in which the story overall approach meant that we ended seeing things from a more social perspective, rather than what I had expected to be his wife’s. It’s kind of like the reverse here; perhaps a less personal take on Hamdan would have effected a bigger impact.

Then again, maybe I am overthinking things, much like thoughts of cultural imperialism, George Gerbner’s cultivation theory, and government propaganda may well have been flights of fanciful thinking. ‘Fantasial’ became much clearer with the introduction of Noni (Atiqah Hanafi), who auditioned after Hamdan did. She could not sing to save her life, but it did not stop the male judges from standing up to applaud her: “I can accept you. You have the package. It’s interesting.” She is clearly untalented, and perhaps a lot less sincere than Hamdan was, but this could and should be taken as a hit against industrial standards, in which beauty is seen as a perfectly acceptable substitute for actual aptitude.

Overall, this is actually a well-made film, one in which important issues and themes are brought to the fore. Yet the same issue I had with this film meant that I was not entirely sure how to enjoy the palate of ideas laid out in front of me. Again, is it a serious effort with light touches of humour here and there? Or are we to apply a dollop of satire here, with the national agenda firmly placed in Daniyal’s crosshair? There’s more than a faint touch of the ridiculous here, so I’m tempted to say it’s the latter, but perhaps this says more about me than it does about the film. All the same, ‘Fantasial’ remains something of a rarity amongst the majority of Malaysian short films I usually come across. I truly applaud the bigger objective it has in mind, and in that light, perhaps it may well be the film we all need, even if it’s not the one we want or deserve right now.

Pesta Filem KITA 2019 takes place this weekend on Saturday 16th March 2019. Check out their Facebook page for more details.

Featured image credit: it’s me neosiam / Pexels

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